Jim Hipsher is a 76-year-old human book of poetry. Each week, he visits senior living communities, where he asks residents to name their favorite poems. Eighty percent of the time, he says, he knows the poem they name and recites it perfectly. Among his most popular? Poems by Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Shakespeare and eight-page epics by Robert Service.
He's humble about this, which makes sense: He's been performing poetry for the past 30 years, memorizing more than 150 poems. Hipsher gets most of his jobs from ElderAudience, a website geared toward activity directors at senior care facilities looking for performers. Unlike most, who charge anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour, Hipsher doesn't charge a dime.
"It's just for fun, always for fun," he says. "I just felt that I liked to perform, and people like it, and I thought it was kind of giving back to society. As long as they like it, I'm happy—I don't need the money," he says.
Hipsher says he first started memorizing in his 20s while enduring 50-below winters in Tok, Alaska, in the 1960s. The town would have open-mic nights at the bar, and Hipsher first started performing memorized poetry. Eventually, he started writing his own poems too, mostly based on a friend who outlived the largest earthquake in North America in the 1960s and who outran a bear.
Hipsher continued memorizing poems and performing them for senior living communities in Alaska, in hospice centers and schools and at poetry slams. Five years ago, he won two poetry slams where he competed alongside college students.
"It felt good," he says. "I'm a bit of a ham."
Once he retired, Hipsher started calling senior living communities, which were often leery of him at first. But after he found ElderAudience, he started getting calls left and right. If you know elderly people in a care center in the Portland area, they've probably met Jim, who's performed at around 40 in the past 16 years.
"Most of them are blown away because I do everything by memory," he says. "I almost cried,' this one guy told me. 'You're my Father's Day present.' It made me feel good, and then he gave me a box of candy. It was so sweet," he says. "I like making people happy."